Seven Ways to Navigate Certificate Management Complexity

Posted on by Murali Palanisamy

This year, more than ever, the management of digital certificates is pivotal for ensuring trust, security, and encryption for machines, workloads, applications, and cloud services. Understanding and implementing best practices in certificate lifecycle management is not just a technical necessity but a strategic imperative for implementing zero trust. 

Two incidents underscore the importance of certificate management for preventing data breaches and outages. In the infamous Equifax breach, attackers hid in encrypted traffic on the company’s network for 76 days, querying various databases and exfiltrating data due to an expired digital certificate. Microsoft Teams was offline for nearly three hours last year because of an expired certificate. 

Clearly, even the largest and most technology savvy organizations in the world can be victimized by certificate issues. That’s because managing digital certificates is a multifaceted exercise, involving the coordination of security, compliance, scale, and evolving technology across varied IT infrastructures.

Here’s an overview of the challenges associated with digital certificate management, and best practices for overcoming them.  

1. Recognizing the Need for Automation

The exponential growth in the number of digital certificates, which can reach into the thousands and even millions, underlines the need for automation in certificate lifecycle management. Manual processes are not only labor-intensive but also prone to human error, which can lead to misconfiguration, weaknesses, and expirations that can impact security, availability, and compliance. Automation not only streamlines the process but also ensures consistency and reliability in managing certificates. With the increasing volume and complexity of certificates, automation becomes a non-negotiable aspect of cybersecurity.

2. Embracing Agility in Certificate Management

The shift towards DevOps and agile practices in software development has necessitated a more dynamic approach to certificate management. Developers now require the ability to rapidly acquire and deploy certificates as part of their workflow. This shift calls for a certificate lifecycle management process that is integrated into the software development lifecycle, allowing for instant generation and deployment of certificates. This means ensuring that their certificate management systems are flexible and capable of adapting to the on-demand environment of modern software development and cloud native application delivery.

3. Centralizing Certificate Inventory

A centralized view of all certificates is essential for effective management. This comprehensive inventory should detail every certificate's type, expiration date, usage, and crypto algorithm. This is critical for tracking but also in the event of a rapid algorithm switch. This approach is particularly relevant in preparing for post-quantum cryptography and ensuring compliance with partners and regulators. A centralized inventory offers a clear picture of the organization’s certificate landscape, facilitating better decision-making, and risk management.

4. Focusing on Risk Reduction

Reducing risk is a primary concern in certificate lifecycle management, where the goal is to prevent outages and security incidents. Automation plays a key role in risk reduction, as it decreases the likelihood of human error and ensures timely renewal and management of certificates. Google’s proposal to reduce, Transport Layer Security (TLS) certificate validity from 398 days to a mere 90 days will increase the risk in certificate related incidents if automation is not adopted. As a result, certificate management should extend beyond a technical check box exercise and be considered a fundamental part of the organization's broader risk management strategy.

5. Implementing Crypto-Agility

In anticipation of future developments like the threat of post-quantum cryptography, government entities must prepare for a shift in cryptographic standards. This involves developing a strategy to quickly adapt to new algorithms and standards. The ability to switch algorithms "in the blink of an eye" will be required to address future cryptographic challenges. Organizations should ensure their teams are not only aware of these impending changes but are also actively preparing for them.

6. Ensuring Operational Excellence 

Operational excellence in certificate lifecycle management is not just about efficiency; it's also about user satisfaction. For DevOps, NetOps, CloudOps, SecOps, and application teams, the ease of obtaining and managing certificates can significantly impact their productivity and, consequently, the organization's overall performance. Thus, a system that offers self-service capabilities for certificate management that enforces enterprise-wide Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) policies and integrates seamlessly into existing workflows is crucial. This approach aligns with the need for agility and underscores the importance of considering user experience in cybersecurity practices.

7. Overcoming Challenges with TLS and Cloud Adaptation

Many organizations are grappling with the challenges associated with transitioning from TLS 1.2 to 1.3, highlighting the broader issue of adapting to evolving standards, such as quantum resilient certificates. Staying ahead of these changes and ensuring that certificate management practices are compatible with both on-premises and cloud environments is essential. In addition, the growing role of cloud providers in certificate management indicates a need for a unified platform that can integrate and manage certificates across various environments.

Effective certificate lifecycle management is a multifaceted effort that requires people, processes, and technology to achieve automation, agility, risk management, and future-proofing against emerging technologies. The seven best practices listed above, provide a framework for ensuring the security, integrity and encryption of digital communications, in order to maintain the trust of internal users, citizens, and stakeholders.

Murali Palanisamy

Chief Solutions Officer, AppViewX

DevSecOps & Application Security

application security DevOps digital signatures identity management & governance key management

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